Editor’s Note: This is the seventh in a bi-monthly La Jolla Light series examining the various faith communities in our town and the people within them. Reporter Linda Hutchison and photographer Milan Kovacevic take us into the familiar buildings for insight on what goes on inside … and why. Read previous installments online at lajollalight.com
Tucked into the north end of one of La Jolla’s shortest streets is a church with a rich, long history.
Prince Chapel by the Sea African Methodist Episcopal Church on Cuvier Street was founded officially in 1943, but its spiritual roots began in La Jolla in the 1920s (and in the United States in the late 1700s). The African Methodist Episcopal Church (AMEC) grew out of the Free Africa Society shortly after Americans won independence but while blacks were still slaves.
“It is the oldest African-American church in the country,” explained Rev. Chuck Norris, pastor of Prince Chapel, referring to the AMEC. “It started first in black colleges and universities and has always been about social justice.
“Early members petitioned President Lincoln about the Emancipation Proclamation and church bishops led the way for the formation of the NAACP.” The NAACP was founded in 1909. Many key players in the civil rights movement, such as Rosa Parks and James Meredith, were members of the AMEC.
This sense of social justice, “doing what is right for all people,” according to Rev. Norris, still marks the spirit of the church today. Under his guidance, the church is very focused on helping people. “Our mission is about reaching families, and helping families strengthen themselves,” he said. “They are the building blocks of society.”
Prince Chapel accomplishes this mission in three ways, he added. “First, we invest in our youth, bring them together, introduce them to people to offer leadership, help with academics. We support and encourage one another, teach our youth to have a voice and to use it in a positive, effective and responsible manner.” Rev. Norris also focuses on young people of mixed race, who may be struggling with identity issues.
Second, Prince Chapel reaches out to the homeless. “We work with the police department to feed the homeless, clothe them, talk with them, cheer them up, treat them with dignity,” he said. “It’s part of our basic Christian tenets … reaching out to colleagues.”
Third, the church feeds the hungry. Its main outreach ministry serves the Rachel’s House, a women’s shelter in San Diego.
In addition to these programs and regular worship services, Prince Chapel hosts several musical events throughout the year with its Praise Team youth choir and an annual Pillar of Light festival, which has a musical theme. This year’s festival will be held 7-8:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 29 and Friday, Jan. 30 at the Congregational Church of La Jolla on Cave Street.
“Its purpose is three-fold,” said Rev. Norris. “It’s a kickoff for Black History Month in February. It’s a national evangelical revival, with guest speakers. And most, important, it gives people a boost spiritually. We’ve just finished Christmas and this encourages and lifts spirits. We strive to honor people, bring light to the community, make the community better — not just in La Jolla, but in all of San Diego.”
During this year’s festival, the church will present two Pillar of Light awards to honor members of the community for their contributions. On Thursday night, the award will go to Leon Chow of C & H Photo and on Friday night to Dr. Robert Gillespie of Sharp HealthCare and chairman of the board of the Association of Black Cardiologists.
A look back …
The first AMEC church in La Jolla was formed in 1921 to serve the black community, primarily domestic servants. Members met at La Jolla Union Mission, a small, two-room house near the site of the current church. In 1943, the church officially organized under its current name. A new church building was erected in 1948 while members held their services at the La Jolla Recreation Center. Since then, it has gone through two major remodels, one in 1985 and another in 2008.
The AMEC is doctrinally Methodist and organizationally Episcopalian, meaning governed by bishops. According to the AMEC website, the church currently has membership in 20 Episcopal Districts in 39 countries on five continents.
Rev. Norris joined Prince Chapel in 2010, after serving at a church in Phoenix, Arizona. He was born in Chicago, the oldest of six children. After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business, he worked in the information technology world for 20 years and then in the non-profit arena before being ordained.
During Black History Month, the church will add special presentations to its regular services spotlighting prominent local and national figures in black history.
Prince Chapel by the Sea African Methodist Episcopal Church
Address: 7517 Cuvier Street, La Jolla, Ca 92037
Phone: (858) 459-0271
Facebook: Prince Chapel by the Sea, La Jolla
Twitter: @Prince Chapel
Leader: Rev. Chuck Norris, pastor
Year established: 1943
Average Weekend Attendance: 42
Worship Services: Church School 9 a.m. Sunday; Worship Service 10:30 a.m. Sunday; Bible Study 7 p.m. Wednesday; Youth Gathering 6:45 p.m. second Fridays
Community Programs: Homeless outreach program. Annual Pillar of Light musical celebration, Jan. 29-30